‘Jittery’ Regulator Awaits its Fate on Second Birthday
Thursday, 4th December 2014 at 10:55 am
As the Australian charity regulator celebrates its second birthday and Federal Parliament again debates its future, ACNC Commissioner Susan Pascoe says a climate of uncertainty has become the new normal.
This week Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commissioner, Susan Pascoe AM spoke to Pro Bono Australia about the highs and lows of the first two years of operation.
“There’s a sense that because of the volatility in the Senate until the vote is taken you just wait and see. Obviously the next 48 hours are going to be quite critical,” Pascoe said as December 3 marked the second anniversary of the regulator.
The ACNC was set up by the former Federal Labor Government and began operating in December 2012 when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister. The Federal Coalition Government vowed to dismantle the regulator when it came into office, claiming the regulator did not reduce red tape for the charity sector.
“We have got to the stage where uncertainty is the new normal for us and, not that I will miss it but of course, people are pretty jittery today because everyone wants to see how this unfolds over the next 48 hours,” Pascoe said.
“I think if we were not to continue two things I think would be quite tragic.
“One would be the loss of the (charity) register because I think a freely available, searchable, credible, online register is just a gift to the Australian people and a resource that really does improve the transparency of the sector and the confidence people have in charities.
“The second would be the dispersement of ACNC staff because we have assembled together and absolutely outstanding group of people with a fabulous culture.
“I doubt you could replicate that quickly if you moved to an alternative arrangement.
The staff have been brilliant; they are committed and passionate, they care about the sector, and they really are capable people.”
Pascoe said there had been a number of significant achievements in the ACNC’s first two years.
“I think the build of the charity register is the critical piece of work for us. And we always say in the preamble that this is not a criticism of the ATO but the list of charities that they had was a very out of date list,” she said.
“The work that we have been doing to bring it up to date so that people can go to the one-stop-shop and find credible information, that’s been a really long piece of work….and for the first time there is an accurate set of data on the charity sector in Australia.
“I also think the data that we have got through the Annual Information Statement that we have been able to analyse with Curtin University, that is close to a census, has provided for the first time accurate information about what the sector looks like.
“If we survive then from next year we would have the financial data and the governance data a well, so we are going to have some absolutely rich data on the sector and I think that’s going to be incredibly important.
“I think the other thing in terms of trust and confidence, the fact that there is a place for a complainant to go and have it dealt with, I think that’s been really important and we’ve dealt with a lot of cases.
“What has been most impressive has been that almost all the charities have, once they have realised they have had an internal problem, have bent over backwards to address the problem.
“One of the fears people had when the ACNC started was that the enforcement powers in the legislation would be used in a heavy handed way. And I think after two years we can say you can judge us by our acts – we have not used them in a heavy handed way.
“It’s a reflection of our regulatory approach and a reflection of the nature of the sector which wants to do the right thing.
“As I have said one of the real challenges of our first two years has been the ongoing climate of uncertainty.
“In terms of the Annual Information Statement we are aware of people who think that because it is Government policy to get rid of the ACNC, that it’s gone and we still have some outstanding 2013 AIS and some 2014 still outstanding. We are putting a strong message out there that charities need to get these in and we will be revoking their status if they don’t get them in.”
Pascoe said that another highlight, particularly on a personal level, had been the engagement with the sector.
“This has been just one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of the role,” she said.
“Especially during a recent series of presentations across Australia to help bring in the remaining 2013 AIS statements.
“I always love getting out and talking to the charities … it’s very uplifting to see the extraordinary work going on…on both a professional and personal level.”
On an optimistic level Pascoe said the regulator did have ongoing goals.
“We certainly want to analyse the financial data as it comes in. Anecdotally there might be a need for some guidance in financial management and education with some charities and we can always work to do more on governance.
“We want to do more of that research and work on red tape reduction initiatives. The uncertainty has really hampered those. Hopefully if there is certainty one way or the other we can proceed with those because there is an appetite for it.
“I absolutely agree with David Crosbie from Community Council for Australia on the need for fundraising reform, even though it is not our job but I would endorse any efforts that the States and Territories can make… and hope there could be some relief for charities.”